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Court tosses conviction of woman who said she killed husband in self-defense

Diana Lalchan was convicted of fatally shooting her husband in 2013. The D.C. Court of Appeals ordered a new trial, ruling that the trial judge failed to instruct jurors of the long-term effects of what was once called battered wife syndrome.

Diana Lalchan (foreground). (Keith Alexander/The Washington Post)

A former Walter Reed pharmacist who in 2019 was found guilty of fatally shooting her husband in the back of the head was freed from prison after the D.C. Court of Appeals overturned the conviction and determined that the judge overseeing her trial failed to adequately instruct jurors on the lingering effects of a particular legal defense once referred to as battered wife syndrome.

The appeals court had granted Diana Lalchan, 37, a new trial in the 2013 killing of Christopher Lalchan, but prosecutors earlier this month wound up dismissing all charges against her following the September ruling. Lalchan, also known as Dianna Lalchan in several court filings, had served nearly half of her 7½-year sentence in a federal prison after a D.C. Superior Court jury in 2019 found her guilty of voluntary manslaughter while armed.

The D.C. Court of Appeals ruled that Judge Ronna L. Beck failed to thoroughly instruct jurors before deliberations about the lingering effects of spousal abuse and how those effects could lead a person during an act of violence to believe they were acting in self-defense. The three-judge panel agreed with Lalchan’s public defenders and said Beck should have told jurors that they could “consider the effects of battery in assessing whether Ms. Lalchan’s perception of danger was objectively reasonable.”

“We are hopeful that the Court’s clarification of the District’s self-defense laws will help reduce the discrimination against people suffering from intimate-partner violence who are forced to defend themselves against their partners,” said Janet Mitchell, special counsel for the District’s Public Defender Service.

The Court of Appeals decision was seen as a victory for individuals who claim self-defense in crimes involving domestic violence. But members of Christopher Lalchan’s family say they were “robbed” of justice by the appellate court and by prosecutors who chose not to retry Diana Lalchan.

“In court they made Chris out to be a stereotype, this big, angry, abusive Black man. We know that was never him,” said David Heiserman, Christopher Lalchan’s cousin-in-law.

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment on the case.

At the close of presenting their evidence, Lalchan’s attorneys asked Beck to instruct the jury that, in determining whether she acted in self-defense, the jury could also consider whether Lalchan acted, according to the opinion, “as a reasonable woman with a history of trauma and the effects of battery.”

Beck wrongfully denied that request, the three-judge panel determined, concluding that evidence Lalchan suffered from prior battery could be considered in determining whether she perceived danger, but had no bearing on whether her perception was “objectively reasonable.”

Such an instruction, defense attorneys have argued, could help some jurors avoid faulting individuals who claim self-defense but then question why a defendant did not call police, seek a restraining order or terminate the relationship. Attorneys have argued that many individuals who have been abused are often unable to make such rational moves due to being paralyzed with fear or financially dependent on the abuser, all of which, the attorneys say, result in diminished mental capacity.

Patricia Riley, a former federal prosecutor in the District and now an adjunct professor at Georgetown Law, said the appellate court’s opinion instructs D.C. judges to ensure such oral instructions inform jurors to consider that prior abuse can alter the rationale of a person who may believe he or she was in a violent situation.

“People have a hard time understanding self-defense when it comes to abusive relationships,” Riley said. “They want to fault the abused for not leaving the relationship or seeking help from police as soon as the abuse began. But that would be rational thinking. This instruction would have reminded jurors that individuals who have had years of abuse may not have been thinking rationally when they assault or kill.”

During the nearly month-long trial, Lalchan took the witness stand, sobbing at times, and testified that her husband had been controlling and abusive. She said he often wrapped his hands around her throat in fits of rage until she decided to fight back. Several of Lalchan’s co-workers and friends also testified, saying that they saw bruising on her neck and/or that she told them her husband had attacked her.

Lalchan told authorities on the night she shot her husband in their Southwest Washington home that the two had been arguing about getting a divorce and he grabbed a mop handle and threatened her with it. It was then, she said, that she fired three bullets at her husband. The first two bullets hit the wall and floor. The third bullet struck Christopher Lalchan in the back of his head.

Federal prosecutors described Diana Lalchan as manipulative and charged her with first-degree murder. Prosecutors argued that there was no evidence of domestic abuse and that Lalchan had fabricated the story because she wanted to leave her husband and live as a lesbian. Prosecutors also said that she did not want to pay alimony or shame her parents, who raised her in a religiously strict household.

Authorities said there was no sign of a struggle, and no 911 call from Lalchan pleading for help before the shooting. Prosecutors argued that Lalchan did not fit the profile of an abused spouse, an argument the defense vehemently countered was based on “stereotypes.” The prosecutors stressed at trial that Lalchan had an advanced degree and was the breadwinner of her household, making more than $100,000 as a pharmacist — suggesting she had the resources to leave the relationship.

At trial, psychological experts hired by Lalchan’s attorneys testified that their client’s behavior was consistent with that of other survivors of intimate-partner violence, formerly known as battered woman syndrome, her attorneys said. One of the psychologists testified that battered partners — both male and female — often do not leave an abusive relationship or report violence because of embarrassment or fear that such steps might make the abuse worse. Or they stay and instead hope that the abuse will cease.

Lalchan’s attorneys argued that psychologists have found that victims of abuse often are able to recognize verbal and nonverbal cues from their abuser as a flag of imminent physical assault. The attorneys requested that the judge overseeing the trial reiterate such claims by their psychologist to the jurors.

After two days of deliberations, the jury acquitted Lalchan of first- and second-degree murder. But jurors found her guilty of manslaughter while armed. As the guilty verdict was read, Lalchan sat motionless. One of her attorneys was visibly distraught and began wiping away tears.

In their appeal, Lalchan’s attorneys argued that had the judge instructed the jury about the diminished capacity of abuse victims, their client would have been acquitted of all charges.

Jeremy Karmel, another of Christopher Lalchan’s cousins, said it was “outrageous” that the case against their cousin’s killer was dismissed.

“She shot him, in the back of his head. And between 2013 and now, she only spent three years in prison for that. That is not justice. And now she lives her life, but Chris isn’t so fortunate,” Karmel said.